business news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB Archive Search

Please Note: Some MNB articles contain special formatting characters, and may cause your search to produce fewer results than expected.

    Published on: July 27, 2021

    by Michael Sansolo

    It was Winston Churchill who once said, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

    This line occurred to me the other day when I was watching Kevin's FaceTime commentary about how vintners - unable to interact with customers at their wineries during Covid-19 - embraced technologies like Zoom and created virtual tasting sessions that may well have brought them closer to more customers than ever, with a strong base on which to build during the after-times.

    That's what all good marketers do, especially today.  If people are not or will not come to you, then it is critical, if you have any interest in survival, to go to them.

    I also thought of the Churchill line when a friend of mind (a man in his 60s) told me about how he'd gone to his first baby shower.  He was of two minds about the experience - he really had not interest in going, but he also recognized that we live in a world where it is not a good look to assume that baby showers are just for women.  He's in no hurry to go to another one, but he understood that invitations to men were about something more than just having more people at the shower.

    He also noticed something else at the shower.  Many of the women involved in the shower were first timers as well and seemed unready and unprepared for some of the key details of the day, such as properly recording who gave which gift. Luckily for this group of novices, my friend’s wife was on hand and, as a veteran of such events, she stepped in to save the day.  (Knowing what to do with wrapping paper is no small skill in such moments.)

    When I spoke with my friend after the event, he ruminated on how much his wife had improved the experience for everyone and speculated on just how chaotic it would have been without her. It got me thinking that there’s a business opportunity there. Obviously with the current labor shortage it’s hard to consider offering new services but that might be exactly what brick and mortar stores need do to thrive.

    So why can’t retailers offer party planning services to help with everything from setting menus to building checklists to help ensure a happy and organized event. I have to believe that many of the people attending baby or bridal showers (certainly not me) are very busy women juggling, in many cases, children, jobs and more. Getting a helping hand might be welcomed and could be seen as a service worth a fee.  Or maybe a service worth offering for free if it creates a sustainable relationship between the retailer and the customer.

    No matter how you slice it, it sounds like a good idea on multiple counts.

    But let’s consider a more complex idea. A recent study found that teen-agers around the globe are lonelier than they were a decade back. Unsurprisingly a lot of that isolation is attributed to the negative impact of technology, social media and, of course, a year of covid lockdowns.

    Here again, let’s find opportunity in the face of a new problem. Back in the 1980s supermarkets became the site of singles’ nights promotions throughout the US as baby boomers went looking for safer spaces to meet and mingle. I’m not suggesting we bring those parties back any more than I’d call for a rebirth of tie-dyed t-shirts and bell-bottom pants.  (Though I must admit that I'm seeing a lot more tie-dye lately, enough so it seems like a trend.  One place I won't be seeing it, though, will be in the mirror.)

    But let’s examine today’s problems for new opportunities.  If today’s teens are increasingly lonely, perhaps supermarkets could help about again by offering communal events such as classes on cooking, nutrition or even shopping strategies. The lack of home economics education has left this field wide open. (And, by the way, teens aren’t the only ones out there facing loneliness. Perhaps wine tasting events might entice those in their 20s and 30s—or 60s—looking for a fun activity.)

    One has to imagine that many parents would gladly pay for such education and it might turn a generation of teens into better cooks and shoppers and could possibly pay off in long-term loyalty.

    It is all about finding the opportunity, about being an optimist about one's ability to connect with customers, and sometimes seeing the world through fresh eyes.

    Which reminds me.  My friend who went to the baby shower also saw another opportunity.  It seems that almost everybody brought presents suitable for newborns.  But, he reasoned, won't the kid grow out of those items fairly quickly?  Maybe it would make sense, he said, to structure a baby shower so that some people get newborn stuff, but another group gets the baby at six months, another gets the kid at a year, and so on.

    In other words, it would identify an opportunity in every difficulty.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at

    His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

    And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.

    Published on: July 27, 2021

    The return of students to in-person learning this fall could open up an opportunity for food retailers.  After all, KC reasons, considering everything that has happened during the pandemic, will many parents want their kids eating cafeteria food?

    Published on: July 27, 2021

    QR codes are back, and in a big way, propelled like so many technologies by a pandemic that created new needs and new habits.

    They are, the New York Times writes, emerging "as a permanent tech fixture from the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants have adopted them en masse, retailers including CVS and Foot Locker have added them to checkout registers, and marketers have splashed them all over retail packaging, direct mail, billboards and TV advertisements."

    But the use of QR codes is not just enabling people to access restaurant menus on their smart phones.  It "has also let businesses integrate more tools for tracking, targeting and analytics, raising red flags for privacy experts. That’s because QR codes can store digital information such as when, where and how often a scan occurs. They can also open an app or a website that then tracks people’s personal information or requires them to input it.

    "As a result, QR codes have allowed some restaurants to build a database of their customers’ order histories and contact information. At retail chains, people may soon be confronted by personalized offers and incentives marketed within QR code payment systems."

    The Times notes that while QR codes have been common elsewhere  for decades, their use in the US "was hampered by clumsy marketing, a lack of consumer understanding and the hassle of needing a special app to scan the codes," though that changed when "Apple made it possible for the cameras in iPhones to recognize QR codes, spreading the technology more widely."

    And then came the pandemic.

    KC's View:
      It always has seemed to me that people don't mind if companies are using a technology like QR codes to do a better job of creating targeted marketing programs, as long as the programs are relevant and the efforts are transparent.  That's often where businesses drop the ball - they don't tell people, and then folks get annoyed and feel that they are being manipulated.

    There's no excuse for "a lack of consumer understanding," at least not if businesses make explaining the narrative behind these technologies a high priority.

    Published on: July 27, 2021

    The New York Times had a really interesting piece the other day about genetically modified organisms, which it rightly said had, "since their introduction in the mid-1990s … have remained wildly unpopular with consumers, who see them as dubious tools of Big Ag, with potentially sinister impacts on both people and the environment."

    But, the Times writes, that may not be fair.  Or accurate.

    And so the paper tells the story of Cathie Martin, a plant biologist who "has spent almost two decades studying tomatoes," and has created one  of unique properties - "a lustrous, dark purple variety that is unusually high in antioxidants, with twice the amount found in blueberries … When cancer-prone mice were given Martin’s purple tomatoes as part of their diet, they lived 30 percent longer than mice fed the same quantity of ordinary tomatoes; they were also less susceptible to inflammatory bowel disease."

    The Times suggests that perhaps the story of GMOs has been over-simplified through the years.  For example, "Martin’s tomato wasn’t designed for profit and would be grown in small batches rather than on millions of acres: essentially the opposite of industrial agriculture. The additional genes it contains (from the snapdragon, itself a relative of the tomato plant) act only to boost production of anthocyanin, a nutrient that tomatoes already make. More important, the fruit’s anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties, which seem considerable, are things that many of us actively want."

    But it is a complicated story, largely because the priorities of companies like Monsanto in many ways seem at odds with those of people like Martin.  You can read the story here

    Over the years, whenever I've written about GMOs, the word I've most often used to describe my attitude is "agnostic."  I've always believed that there is a role for GMOs - and the purple tomato strikes me as a perfect example of what I've imagined.  I also think that GMOs could be enormously useful in feeding a planet that increasingly is seeing its crop supplies threatened by factors related to climate change.

    This is a fascinating story … it will please some and irritate others.  But I think it is good to get a sense of stories untold, especially when it is about "the future of small-scale, bespoke" GMOs.


    Published on: July 27, 2021

    The Financial Times has a piece about how "climate change is shifting the frontiers of where food is grown as farmers and agricultural businesses adapt to warmer temperatures around the world. While in some regions heat and drought are threatening the cultivation of certain crops, raising food security concerns, in others, the warming climate has allowed growers to cultivate new crops and varieties which in previous decades would have been difficult to produce profitably."

    One example:  "The frontiers for grapes grown for wine have shifted north both in Europe and North America. Canada, for example, has made big strides as a pinot noir producer, say wine connoisseurs."

    Another example:  The warning climate in Sicily "has proven to be perfect for tropical fruits, which has led entrepreneurial growers to turn to produce including avocados and mangos."

    But, FT writes, the reality is that "many farmers who have not been able to grasp that opportunity have gone out of business over the past 10 years."

    You can read the entire story here.

    Published on: July 27, 2021

    Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic and how businesses and various business sectors are trying to recover from it, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  In the United States, there now have been 35,287,269 total cases of the Covid-q19 coronavirus, resulting in 627,039 deaths and 29,548,468 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 195,346,641 total coronavirus cases, with 4,182,840 resultant fatalities and 177,183,824 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) says that 66.5 percent of the US population age 12 and older has received at least one dose of vaccine, with 57.5 percent  being fully vaccinated.

    •  The Wall Street Journal writes that "a significant uptick in Covid-19 cases across the U.S. is leading to new vaccination mandates for public employees, with the Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday becoming the first federal agency, California the first state, and New York the first major city to announce requirements for their workers.

    "Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said healthcare personnel who work in or visit Veterans Health Administration facilities or provide direct care to people the VA serves would have eight weeks to get vaccinated.

    "Officials in the state of California and New York City said Monday they would require their workers to either be vaccinated against Covid-19 or be tested at least weekly for the virus. California’s order, which also applies to those who work in healthcare settings, goes into effect in August. The New York City mandate begins after Labor Day."

    The announcements were not universally well-received.  For example, the Journal writes that "the requirements drew criticism from some unions and sparked questions about their legality. Richard L. Brown, president of the Service Employees International Union chapter that represents 43% of California approximately 238,000 state employees, said in a video posted online that he was appalled by Mr. Newsom’s announcement and that the state’s new policy violated his members’ privacy and healthcare rights."

    At the same time, in another story, the Journal reports that "the rise in Covid-19 cases driven by the Delta variant is prompting school districts across the country to consider changing their face-mask requirements, in an effort to stick to their plans to bring back students for in-person learning this fall.

    "With just weeks until the first day of school, debates are raging over a matter that seemed settled earlier this summer—whether to require face masks, or ban such requirements. Districts, however, aren’t considering a return to remote learning.

    "Several big city districts, including in Chicago, Atlanta and New Orleans, said last week they will require masks when schools reopen for in-person learning."

    •  The Associated Press reports that "The St. Louis area has become one of the first in the United States to reinstate mask requirements amid a rise in cases that health officials are blaming on low vaccination rates and the highly contagious delta variant.

    "Despite pushback from some elected officials, face coverings became mandatory Monday in indoor public places and on public transportation in St. Louis city and St. Louis County for everyone ages 5 or older — even for those who are vaccinated. Wearing masks outdoors is strongly encouraged, especially in group settings … The decision comes as both of Missouri’s urban areas see a big uptick in coronavirus hospitalizations that began in rural areas of the state, especially in southwestern Missouri.

    "Missouri ranks fourth nationally in the most new cases per capita in the past 14 days, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering to measure outbreak caseloads and deaths across the United States."

    •  The New Yorker offers an assessment of how the resurgence of the Covid19 coronavirus - driven both by the highly transmissible Delta variant as well as by people who have decided that they do not need to be vaccinated nor do they need to wear masks - is likely to affect the economy.

    The short message:  The second "Roaring Twenties" that many were anticipating as the pandemic receded may not be coming around anytime soon.

    The New Yorker writes:

    "Now that the spread of the Delta variant has pushed the seven-day average of new cases above fifty thousand, and the number of hospitalizations has jumped by more than fifty per cent in two weeks, economists and investors are reassessing the prospects. Last Monday, the stock market tumbled on concerns about the variant, before rebounding on Tuesday. Later this week, the Department of Commerce will publish its initial estimate of actual G.D.P. growth in the second quarter. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s GDPNow model, which incorporates a range of recent economic releases, estimates the figure at 7.6 per cent. In normal times, that would be a blockbuster figure. However, it is significantly below some of the estimates from May, and it shows how in some regions and industries, even before the rebound in covid cases, shortages of labor, computer chips, and other components were holding back the recovery. Now worries about the resurgent virus have been added to concerns about supply constraints. Where will the economy go from here?"

    According to the story, while many economists are confident about the nation's ability to grow the economy, there are concerns about what will happen if the resurgence persists - or grows - into the fall.  "Economists said that a key moment will come in a month or so, when schools are scheduled to reopen across the country. The forecasts of rapid employment growth in the second half of this year hinge on many more parents, particularly women, returning to work as child-care concerns ease."  But if that doesn't happen …

    And there's another possibility:  "the emergence of another highly contagious strain of the virus, one that is more deadly and resistant to vaccinations than the Delta variant."

    •  And if the impact of a resurgent pandemic on the economy isn't enough to worry about..

    National Public Radio has a piece about how "PET scans taken before and after a person develops COVID-19 suggest that the infection can cause changes that overlap those seen in Alzheimer's. And genetic studies are finding that some of the same genes that increase a person's risk for getting severe COVID-19 also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's.

    "Alzheimer's diagnoses also appear to be more common in patients in their 60s and 70s who have had severe COVID-19, says Dr. Gabriel de Erausquin, a professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio. 'It's downright scary,' he says."

    Researchers are bringing their findings and concerns to Denver this week for the Alzheimer's Association International Conference.

    •  The Washington Post reports that there is a move afoot in some state legislatures around the country to curtail the authority of public health experts, looking to " limit their authority, including new state laws that prevent the closure of businesses or allow lawmakers to rescind mask mandates."

    According to the story, "At least 15 state legislatures have passed or are considering measures to limit the legal authority of public health agencies, according to the Network for Public Health Law, which partnered with the National Association of County and City Health Officials to document the legislative counterpunches. Lawmakers in at least 46 states have introduced hundreds of bills relating to legislative oversight of gubernatorial or executive actions during coronavirus or other emergencies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

    "The measures, as described by the Network for Public Health Law, include a North Dakota law that prohibits a mask mandate, even during an outbreak of tuberculosis, and a new Montana law that prohibits the use of quarantine to separate people who have probably been infected or exposed but are not yet sick."

    “Whatever your feelings are about what health officials did in March of 2020, I can talk to you about a future threat that might be different, that would disproportionately affect a different population, that you would feel differently about,” Lindsay F. Wiley, director of the Health Law and Policy Program at American University and an expert on emergency reform, tells the Post.  “Please don’t constrain authority as a reaction in a way that will tie officials to the mast for a future crisis.”

    Great.  Just what we need.  Elected officials making public health decisions based on politics rather than on science.  Oy.

    Published on: July 27, 2021

    •  Reuters reports that Amazon is pushing back on a media report in the UK saying that it plans to accept bitcoin as currency by the end of the year.

    "Notwithstanding our interest in the space, the speculation that has ensued around our specific plans for cryptocurrencies is not true," said a spokesperson from Amazon, who added, "We remain focused on exploring what this could look like for customers shopping on Amazon."

    The story notes that Amazon "on July 22 posted a job opening for a digital currency and blockchain product lead.

    "A growing number of companies have started to accept virtual currencies for payment, bringing an asset class shunned by major financial institutions until a few years ago closer to the mainstream."

    Published on: July 27, 2021

    Responding to yesterday's story about how teens are taking up some of the job availability slack around the US, MNB reader George Denman wrote:

    Our 14 year old grand-daughter whom we are raising secured a cashier job at Chick Fila at Kings Island this summer. She started out at $7.85 and within one week was making $10.00 per hour. She loves the job, the socialization, and of course the paycheck which is much bigger than the allowance that we provide today for doing her home chores. Our family has a gold pass to Kings Island so many nights after her shift we meet her there, eat dinner, and ride some of the great coasters like Orizon and the Beast. What’s also great is that she is off Sunday’s since Chick Fila is closed. She averages about 20-25 hours per week.

    Good for her.

    Yesterday we had an MNB reader who said that Market Basket in Massachusetts remains a holdout in the self-checkout trend, prompting another MNB reader to write:

    I find it interesting that your reader would find it sad that Market Basket does not have self-checkout.  I find it refreshing.  There are major differences between the 2 chains, one is “Whole Paycheck” the other is “Whole Basket”.  One has 6 registers the other has 22.  One has limited selection the other has huge selection.  They both have service and are well stocked.  For me, give me Whole Basket.  I have greater selection, great service, and can get out of the store quickly with far less visits per week. Self service is a pain in the neck unless you have under 10 items.  And that is another indicator in itself. 

    Funny how two people can read the same email and come to different conclusions - I thought that reader was happy about Market Basket being a self-checkout holdout.

    Regarding Philip Morris's stated plans to get out of the cigarette business within the next 10 years, one MNB reader wrote:

    After seeing other articles about this, I don’t believe the company plans to get out of the “tobacco game”, but are instead working on non-smoking tobacco products. I see this as an attempt to get ahead of the game while looking like they care about the health of a community more than their profits.

    You're right.  Further reading does suggest that Philip Morris just wants to addict and kill people in other ways.

    On another subject, one MNB reader wrote:

    Kudos to the MNB reader that gave good insights to the hesitancy on the part of manufacturer’s to raise prices as it was my experience that raising prices was a last resort due to negative interactions with customers to get the increases put through.  When commodities and transportation costs spiked as they are now, I also saw management have to increase prices regardless of the pain to protect gross margins and quarterly results.

    In my career it was amusing to me to see retailers raise retail prices to increase their margins or offset their increased costs and tell the manufacturer’s that retails are none of their business, shut up.  But when manufacturers raise prices some of the same retailer buyers take it as a personal insult and threaten retaliation to prevent the increase due to pressure from their management.

    If inflation is really back, retailers and wholesalers will learn what they did in the 70’s that price increases, when enacted across the board, are a welcome opportunity to increase the value of their inventory, raise retail prices, make more money and still be competitive in the marketplace.

    And, regarding the drop in e-grocery sales in June compared to last year, one reader wrote:

    An interesting side effect of e-grocery sales dropping is the drop in delivery offers to Instacart drivers.  Many drivers were added last year and now there’s much less opportunity.  But the number drivers isn’t dropping off yet.

    Same thing is happening with DoorDash and Uber Eats, average per hour is down as base pay has been reduced and more drivers are chasing fewer orders (and these drivers hate the Walmart and other grocery pickups which frequently don’t tip).  Many drivers are frustrated as many came to depend on this as their main source of income with job losses.

    Yesterday, we took note of a Seattle Times report that "Amazon Web Services (AWS) CEO Adam Selipsky has launched an investigation into the business segment’s culture after more than 550 employees signed a petition accusing the cloud-services division of tolerating racial and sexual discrimination and harassment."

    I commented:

    It probably is worth pointing out that Selipsky has just returned to AWS after five years as CEO at Tableau Software.  (He was vice president of Marketing, Sales & Support at AWS for 11 years before that.)

    But what this suggests is that the environment being described by the petitioners is one that festered while Andy Jassy was CEO at AWS.  Jassy, of course, has just succeeded Jeff Bezos as CEO of Amazon.

    Could this come back and bite Jassy?  Certainly possible.  Stranger things have happened.

    I'm not going to say this is going to occur, but it strikes me as entirely possible that if the situations described in the lawsuit are found to be systemic and that Jassy has some culpability, his tenure as Amazon CEO could be short-lived, and Bezos could be back in the CEO job.  I know this is a big leap from where the story is now, but it is the kind of thing that could happen.  

    One warning to Amazon and AWS as they deal with this internal probe:  Keep in mind that the coverup always is worse than the crime.  Don't make that mistake.

    Prompting one MNB reader to offer this criticism:

    While it’s possible, it is a HUGE leap to tie a couple of alleged incidents…and as yet undocumented claim of systemic discrimination…to a CEO.

    The rush to label every labor dispute a result of systemic racial or sexual discrimination is pandemic in our society. 

    Certainly discrimination of any kind is unacceptable, but it is always better to gather facts before offering irresponsible speculation.

    I get your point, but I sort of speculate for a living.  And I don't think it is inappropriate for me to point out that the current CEO of Amazon was CEO of AWS when these alleged incidents took place … and that if charges stop being alleged and become a matter of fact, it could put a hit on his reputation.  What's the old saying about where the buck stops?

    To be clear, though, I labeled this all as speculation.  Though I think the broader point about corporate responsibility is worth making.

    Finally, I got a bunch of email about my comments lauding the Cleveland Indians management for their upcoming transition into the Cleveland Guardians.

    One person was a little snarky:

    Well done.  Next, it’s time we address the Vikings, who plundered cities, raped women and slaughtered livestock, and the Buccaneers who boarded, pillaged and sank countless ships.    These were not very good people.  Is this who we want our children to idolize?  And let’s not forget about the team with the largest carbon footprint of them all - the petroleum guzzling NY Jets.  

    I do love good snark.

    MNB reader Duane Eaton wrote:

    Thanks bringing back Cleveland Indian memories.  One of the first baseball games I attended at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium as a 10-year old kid in 1959 was the Orioles vs. the Indians.  Rocky Colavito was in right field, Jimmy Piersall in center and Early Wynn on the mound.  The player I recall most vividly was Piersall because toward the end of the game, in between pitches, he would sometimes run around in circles, both forward and backward.  I had no idea what was going on until my sister’s boyfriend told me he was trying to distract the hitter.  He was one of baseball’s true characters.

    MNB reader Frank J Loffa wrote:

    Thoroughly enjoyed your comments and thoughts on the Cleveland Guardians…a great topic that deserved your insight! It is time to move on! Also loved your comment regarding Rocky Colavito, forgot about that batting stance and challenge to the pitcher. Who else but Tom Hanks…enough said!

    And from another reader:

    Your memory of Rocky Colavito taking practice swings in the batter's box is correct.  I didn't remember it (although I do remember Willie Stargell taking similar swings) but found some video evidence.  The practice swings are visible several times in this video.  One instance is at just into 21 minutes.  Note the early versions of batting gloves.

    Thanks for sharing the video - it's great.  (I think those may be golf gloves. )